30 April 2014

Developing a Procedure for Alla Prima Portrait Painting

Sabrina, 12x9" oil on linen, painted in 3 hours from life

Painting from life is the ultimate artistic learning experience.  Interpreting all the subtle colors and values on a live model is very different from copying a photo, and the time constraint keeps things fresh.  The anxiety I feel at some point during an alla prima session is motivating, too.  Forces me calm down and focus on what's important.  And I always have a sense of accomplishment at the end of the session...I like that.

Tory, 12x9" oil on linen, painted in 3 hours from life

It's important to have a strategy for alla prima portrait painting.  If you don't, you'll end up with a raging mess for all that effort.  Below is my procedure...borrowed from many sources. It's a work in progress.  Each bullet represents about 20 minutes of effort.  If I'm half-way through a 3-hour session and haven't gotten to the features yet, I know I need to speed things up.
  • Compose the image; block in the big shapes
  • Premix paint piles for average skin tones in light and shadow.  Add the darkest dark and lightest light for reference.
  • Loosely paint the big shapes, including background, hair and clothes
  • Second pass on big shapes; adjust colors and correct drawing errors
  • First pass on features and details
  • Third pass on the overall painting; refine shapes, temperatures, brushwork
  • Second pass on features
  • Highlights and dark accent...all done.

Yoni, 12x9" oil on linen, painted in 3 hours from life

Here are a few solid references on alla prima (portrait) painting:

Lee, 8x6" oil on linen, painted in 1 hour from life


  1. Hi Candace,
    Thank you for introducing me to someone I hadn't heard of before. The Harold Speed book is now on my list.

    1. Hi, Karen. Thanks for reading all the way to the end of the post. The Harold Speed book is a classic. So much good information for such a great price. Hope you enjoy it.

  2. thanks for the tips, Candace. Do you have any favorite DVDs on the subject of alla prima portraits? I own a couple. One I found really difficult to watch, it was a portrait demo by two great artists at the same time on the same stage. I still haven't gotten all the way through it! Love your three portraits here...you never disappoint. :)

    1. Hi, Celeste. Thanks as always for your solid support. I think I know the dvd you mentioned. In all fairness to the 2 artists, art instruction dvds are potent sedatives. If I need to get to sleep, but I'm amp'ed up, I'll try watching an art dvd, works every time...serious :o)

      Having said all that, Rob Liberace's dvd on the Alla Prima Portrait is really good. I own it, and I've made it to the end twice! Lots of good tips and worth the cost, which is about 1/4 the price of a standard 10-week art class.

      Thanks again for your comments, Celeste.